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Ben Quilty: "The lack of compassion in the society we live in is very confronting"

Archibald Prize winner, Official War Artist in Afghanistan, advocate for the Bali Nine and the plight of Australia’s indigenous and refugee populations - Ben Quilty has never shied away from illuminating the darker shades of human nature. On the eve of his new exhibition ‘The Stain’, Collide spoke with Ben about the state of art in Australia in 2016 and its ongoing role as both social agent and redemptive force.

Above: BEN QUILTY, Straight White Male, Self Portrait, 2014, oil on linen

Your exhibition ‘The Stain’ is currently showing at Tolarno Galleries. It features paintings and drawings inspired by your travels through Greece, Serbia and Lebanon and the refugees you met along the way. Are you hoping to help people to identify with the plight of refugees? Well yeah, the aim is to humanise things. That’s what writing, literature, art and film do - they allow people to experience compassion, because they help people to understand other human beings a little bit. I’m interested in humans and being human; most of my work is a reflection of that, so of course I hope that it helps people feel a little of what I experienced when I toured the refugee camps with World Vision in January.

There’s a lot of objects that I actually brought back from the shores of Lesbos in this show, and they carry with them a history that sort of parts the mists when you’re in the space with them. Little tiny children’s life jackets and children’s pajamas - objects that then inspired the paintings that are on the walls.

What, do you believe, makes a good portrait? Is it trying to capture an inherent truth to that character? An exaggeration of archetypal signposts or something more intangible than that even?

When I paint a portrait I’m just really trying to get to know the person by making a painting about them and, in that sense, giving people a pathway to understanding that human being, really.

A lot of your early work has been described as articulating or exploring what could perhaps be described as a teenage suburban deathwish. Is your exploration of these themes in some way an attempt to find some inherent beauty or meaning in the reckless masculinity of youth?

Yeah, there’s no doubt. I grew up and left school in the early 90’s, and I think that period for any young person is a pretty exciting time to be alive, but it’s also a dangerous time and it’s very formative. You’re sort of riding the newest technologies, the newest subcultures and you’re viewing the world from a distinctly different position from anyone else. You’re able to see the world through those subcultures and new media, contemporary music and film. I was also at art school at the Sydney College of the Arts in Sydney. It was a great group of people, a great art school and a lot of them went on to be leaders in the world of contemporary art.

As someone who has developed a very refined way of expressing yourself, do you look back on the chaos of adolescence as maybe an outlet for a more unfocused need to assert and express oneself?

Young people are mad if they don’t express themselves. I think everyone’s mad if they don’t express themselves. Why wouldn’t you? Quite often I think that young people feel that the community isn’t interested in what they’re doing or what they’re feeling or saying, but as I said before, they’re at the coalface of new ways of communicating. They’re really living the most interesting existence, and they should be describing that through whatever form they want to be involved with.

Speaking of formative experiences, obviously your time as Official War Artist in Afghanistan must have been quite an important experience for you. Can you tell us a little about your time there? Were you at all conflicted about your participation?

I went there to take a look at what happened to young men when they were taken away to war. The Howard government was voted in by a massive majority and then given a mandate to send young men off to war. There were some idealists who said I shouldn’t have done it because it was seen in some way as being pro-war, but the whole community gave John Howard the mandate, so the whole community was pro-war.

I was just there to record and witness and experience. I was interested in watching history walking in front of me, and in some cases cascading in front of me. It was a profoundly life changing experience to go there and see what was happening, and to see how little of it was actually being reported in Australia. To see how tight the control of the Australian Defence Force’s media liaison was over any story leaving Afghanistan.

At that point there were a lot of young men coming home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and being misdiagnosed and being ignored. The same mistakes that were made after the Vietnam War were being made again. If we vote for a government that sends them to war and then we ignore those men when they come back, it’s at our peril, because those men become very dysfunctional members of our community, they go on to have children and it becomes a social experiment gone horribly wrong.

Above: BEN QUILTY, Survivor, 2012, oil on linen

The ‘After Afghanistan’ series of portraits you did managed to shed quite a lot of light onto the problems of PTSD in returned servicemen. Do you feel that’s one of the primary functions of your work, to cast new light on social issues, be an advocate for education or change? And where does that dovetail with the element of personal expression?

Well I guess it dovetails in the studio. I’m interested in engaging with the world that I live in and art is a visual language and a great way of giving yourself a platform to talk about things that you think are important. If you can use beauty to tell really dark stories then it’s even more profound and powerful I think.

It can truly be disarming to people who have a preconceived viewpoint when, rather than coming at them with polemic, you come with something that’s visually arresting and has a human element. I think it’s definitely more conducive to dialogue.

Exactly. And that’s what I try to do. I didn’t go to Afghanistan and come back with a didactic viewpoint or a point of view, even. My personal view of the war is very different to the work that I made about the experience of young men, and by telling a story and using other people as a vehicle for that story, you’re right, it’s actually creating a debate and not telling people what to think. Art never tells people what to think. Good art starts debates and starts conversations, which is healthy and it doesn’t happen enough in our community.

What’s your opinion on the current state of the arts, both visual and otherwise, in the Australian community – not only with regards to funding and education but also opportunities and public awareness?

Well, the opportunities are diminishing at a rapid pace. When I finished art school in 1995 in Sydney there were eight art schools in the Sydney Metropolitan area, but over the last few years the University of Western Sydney’s fine arts degree in Newcastle has just shut down, all the TAFE’s were deregulated under the Gillard government, and this meant that art schools instantly lost their foothold and were all shut down. Next on the agenda is the amalgamation of the three remaining art schools into one art school, which would mean that in the entire city of Sydney there is only one place for students leaving high school to study art which is horrifying.

It’s bizarre and horrifying that it comes down to economic rationalisation and the universities needing to fund themselves, because the public money is diminishing in the education system. Again, it’s at our own peril. When you take the funds away from the people who tell the stories in the community, you diminish the culture and you diminish the soul of a society. It is at our peril that we chase this economic rationalisation that is a scourge in my community.

It seems to be recently across not only NSW, but Australia, the UK, the USA and the greater western world, that there is an almost tsunami-like drive towards oligarchy. Do you see that as something of a desperate twitching by those who feel the wind beginning to blow the other way, or do you just see it as a continuation and acceleration of business as usual?

I think it’s just an acceleration of business as usual. It’s too easy to get paranoid. There’s such a collective mistrust of the political elite but it’s not the politicians, it’s the system I think that is faltering. We’re seeing it play out now in the lead-up to this federal election in Australia. The way political parties are funded and the implications that then has for business to run with integrity. It’s impossible, it can’t happen, and politics is a reflection of those very ugly associations. As well as that, the death of the art systems, which I think are at the very heart of the soul and health of the culture and our community. But it’s too easy to get paranoid and tied up about single individuals. It’s the system that needs to be realigned, not the people.

Speaking of systems, shortly after you returned from Afghanistan you were contacted by Myuran Sukumaran of the Bali Nine. That must have been quite an unexpected interlude. What was your initial reaction when he contacted you?

Oh I was just intrigued. I’d made a lot of work about young men. I was a young man who grew up in the north western suburbs of Sydney, and he grew up not so far from where I lived as a kid. He was just an intriguing figure and it was a very intriguing email to open from one of his supporters, so I was drawn to him.

There was an honesty and openness to him in his request for help and I felt that he was a subject who was, in a sense, stereotypical of subjects that I’ve been looking at. Young men. Broken young men with flaws that have made mistakes, but also the future of the community that we live in.

Above: Ben Quilty tutors Myuran Sukumaran at Kerobokan Prison in Bali

Did you find it strange or difficult to come to terms with this ‘eye for an eye’ sense of biblical justice – the vicarious bloodlust - that emerged in people when confronted with a case like that?

Yeah. Yeah you’re right, it was extraordinary. The lack of compassion in the society that we live in is very confronting. And again, I think it’s the arts that can heal those things. There’s a lot of voiceless, angry people out there, and you’re right, bloodlust is a perfect term for what happened because there was a portion of our community that wanted to see Myuran Sukumaran shot dead. They wanted it, they actively wanted it.

It was, I think, less biblical and more ‘English colony’, you know? People lining up to see someone executed. The fact that that happened in 2015 was pretty mind-blowing. But those people aren’t my people. My people were all like-minded, we shared the same horror and sadness and grief at Myuran being executed, and I feel those other people are missing out on an opportunity to feel the world the way we do. Feeling the world is a great privilege, I think.

Notes On An Exodus (Penguin, $9.99) by Richard Flanagan, illustrated by Ben Quilty, out now.

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